The Culture Pages – The Queen of Fractured Fairy Tales
New York magazine|March 29 - April 11, 2021
Hlen Oyeyemi writes magical, unsettling novels in which nothing remains fixed. She has lived her life that way, too.
By Helen Shaw. Photograph by Adama Jalloh

The first story the world told about Helen Oyeyemi was that she was a prodigy. A South London girl who had emigrated from Nigeria at the age of 4, she was inward-keeping, sometimes bullied, often desperately sad. As a teen, she endured bouts of clinical depression that she countered with books from the library, episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, eventually, writing. When she was about 15, she read a perfect book. “I stayed home from school,” she told me. “I was ‘off sick’ for three days in bed reading Ali Smith’s Hotel World and just being like, This is allowed? I can’t believe this. I immediately wanted to try it.” Reading was an intense, isolated, even isolating experience. “That’s what made it feel like it was my lifeblood or my own heartbeat,” she said. “It just couldn’t be discussed.”

She wrote short stories throughout her adolescence and sent her strongest one to an agent, looking for advice. He called her the next day. In about six months, at age 18, Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl, an accomplished novel about an 8-year-old whose paranormal not-quite twin from Nigeria starts to wreak havoc. She signed her book contract on the day she got her A-level exam results; the book was published in 2005, while she was taking a politicalscience degree at Cambridge. Reviews were strong, though most of them seemed aware of her youth and the story of her discovery. “Deserving of all its praise, this is a masterly first novel,” wrote Lesley Downer in the New York Times, but only after asking, “Would we think it was as good if we knew nothing about its author?”

Oyeyemi herself is pretty well over talking about this particular story and a little impatient with the press’s obsession with her genesis myth. When I asked about her parents (her mother works for the London Underground; her father is a substitute teacher), she protested, “This sometimes gets dragged into stuff that’s said about me, and I’m just like, ‘Why? I’m 36 now!’ ”

We were speaking via Zoom on a recent Saturday that was bright and chilly—both in Brooklyn, where I live, and in Prague, where Oyeyemi does. The writer, who grew up mostly in the U.K., spent years living all over the globe before landing at last in the Czech Republic, where she has now been settled for an unprecedented seven years. Before ending up in Prague, she was always on the move, and all her books and stories have widely varying climates: Her bracing 2014 book Boy, Snow, Bird is a mid-century retelling of “Snow White” that revolves around a biracial family poisoned by its obsession with passing. Gingerbread (2019) is an immigration picaresque full of brave girls striding confidently into the city, where the witch’s candied house turns out to be a factory. Oyeyemi writes frequently about race and immigration, braiding these issues so tightly into her fable-making that critics rarely seize on them or succeed in pigeonholing her in the typical ways. You can’t help but think of other stories while reading hers, making the experience weirdly dreamlike and personal. In Oyeyemi land, there are more hurried glances and grazing fingertips in bookshops and libraries than in bedrooms.

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